Industrialisation has been a boon for us in so many ways. But we’re paying a heavy price for it, as well. All over the world, age-old traditional ways of doing things – by hand, from scratch – have been slowly forgotten.
Backstrap weaving is one of them. This art has been practised for thousands of years, and it’s not just indigenous to Ecuador. You can also find backstrap weavers practising the craft passed down from their ancestors from Guatemala to Peru. I’ve even seen it in a rural community in Thailand!
I’ve seen how they weave on this and it takes ages! It takes them an entire day to make a single belt, but they say that the quality is better than those made using European-style weaving looms. The latter were introduced to Ecuador during the Spanish conquest and have remained in vogue since. For one, it’s a lot faster to make things on those looms than the traditional backstrap looms.
So the number of backstrap weavers in Ecuador has been dwindling over the years, and now just a handful remain. One of these is Miguel Andrango, who lives in the Agato community just outside Otavalo.
He’s quite a well-known backstrap weaver and has made many international trips to promote and teach this ancient art – you can see old newspaper cutouts from the local papers wherever he went.
However, he stopped travelling in recent years as his wife’s health was declining and he stayed home to take care of her. Sadly, she passed away last year. He’s now 84 and when we spoke to him, it was clear that he misses her very much.
Still, he continues working on his lifelong passion, with the help of his children and some other villagers. He also gives tours of his weaving workshop, which are completely free.
I’d first read about him from simpletravelourway, and reading the rave reviews on TripAdvisor only cemented my desire to visit.
Arranging the visit was easy. We simply emailed to arrange a time, and caught a cab from our hosteria directly to his workshop (the driver knew where it was).
The workshop tour is a fascinating look into how a woven garment is made, starting all the way from unspun wool. They do everything themselves, from cleaning the wool, spinning it, dyeing it, and finally weaving it.
Miguel started by showing us unspun wool – alpaca on the left, sheep on the right. Alpaca wool is noticeably softer than sheep wool, and is supposed to be warmer too.
Next, he showed us how they card the wool. This is done to clean and disentangle the wool and make it into a thin layer suitable for spinning.
I tried my hand at carding and it’s more difficult than it looks! Too much pressure and the wool sticks to the implement and clumps up, too little and it’s ineffective.
You end up with little rolls of wool like this:
Up next: spinning! First he draws out a long strand of wool and then uses the machine to spin it onto the spindle.
Spinning wool is traditionally a woman’s job, while weaving is a man’s, but in this particular workshop, at least, they’re quite egalitarian. Everyone can do everything.
Their dyes are made in the traditional way, from all-natural sources. The purple dye, for example, is made from an insect. To turn it red, just add some lemon. And did you know that walnuts can be used to create dyes too? It’s a yellow-brown kind of colour.
Below is part of a blanket, which takes about 2 months(!) to complete.
Outside, he showed us where the dyes are made. They generally involve boiling for a very long time.
In the little shop you can purchase the stuff they make right here. I was surprised by the sheer variety of what they had on sale – cushion covers, ponchos, jackets, socks, gloves, tapestries… the list goes on.
I ended up buying quite a bit more than I’d anticipated – a poncho and a jacket for $45 each, $6 gloves and a pin-cushion for $10. Luckily, they accept credit cards! It’s a bit pricier than Museo Otavalango, but they do have a much wider variety of stuff. And looking at the amount of work that goes into a single garment, I don’t think the price is unjustified.
It’s also easy to understand why this art is dying out, precisely because of the amount of work involved.
But there is still hope! We met Miguel’s daughter, Luz Maria, who is also a weaver. She proudly told us about her grandson, a 5th-generation weaver who was in Canada to give a weaving demonstration. It was very heartening to learn that there’s significant international interest in this ancient art.
Perhaps this speaks to a wider trend of people turning away from mass-produced goods to more exclusive, bespoke products – as evidenced by the increasing popularity of things like bread machines, specialty coffee and craft beer. It gives me hope that vanishing arts such as backstrap weaving can yet be saved from complete extinction.
So if you’re ever in Otavalo, why not visit Miguel’s workshop? Apart from the fascinating insight into backstrap weaving, I can tell you from personal experience that the jackets will keep you warm and toasty on freezing Andean nights!
Miguel Andrango’s website: http://miguelandrango.weebly.com/ (He speaks English, Spanish and Kichwa.)
How to get there: A cab from Otavalo cost us $5. You can also take a local bus to Agato and ask around for directions to the workshop. To get back, Luz Maria kindly waited with us opposite the workshop for a bus going back to Otavalo. They come quite regularly so it wasn’t much of a wait.
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Have you ever seen backstrap weavers in action? Where?